SANTA ANA — Mara Brandman drove to the Hall of Administration from her home in Orange on Tuesday afternoon, expecting a little hostility. But what she got left her gasping for breath.
"Hostility?" she asked incredulously. "Oh, my, hostility like you've never seen! One elderly couple walked by just a few minutes ago, and the woman looked at my Airport Yes badge, and made a shooting gesture in my direction. You know, shoot as in, 'Bang, bang, you're dead!' I said, 'Isn't it great to be an American?' And you know what her husband said? He said, 'No'!' "
The look on the face of Brandman, 51, a homemaker and mother of five, betrayed a sense of wounded pride and astonishment that anyone could be "so openly rude in America, just for exercising your right as a citizen. And to think it happened in Orange County."
What transpired here Tuesday was a showdown, as the Board of Supervisors met to decide the fate of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. The debate, as fierce and nasty as these parts have seen in some time, came down to Pro- versus Anti-Airport.
Brandman was one of those who believes an international commercial airport on the site of the soon-to-be-defunct Marine base would serve people like her husband, who commutes by air to a job in Northern California, as well as yielding limitless possibilities to thousands of job-seeking residents countywide.
However, Brandman appeared to be in the vast minority, as the anti-airport forces filled the packed meeting room with their voices and placards, while outside, in front of the building, they aggressively lobbied anyone brave enough to enter.
"No LAX in O.C.!" read one sign. "We're the folks who left L.A."
"We raise children here," read another that went on to sum up just about every objection the "anti" faction has to a proposed airport: "No dense smog, no traffic jams, no lung disorders, no plummeting property values . . . no higher taxes . . . A no vote saves South County!"
Flanked by strands of blue, green and white helium-filled balloons, and looking all alone, Brandman positioned herself and her complimentary bottled water and chocolate chip cookies outside the main meeting room, which was filled to capacity, as was the "overflow" crowd in Room 169.
Security officials on the scene estimated the total crowd as from 600 to 700, not counting the 50 or so on both sides of the volatile issue who stood around outside, heckling one another or verbally accosting passersby. Opinions were falling even harder than the rain that pelted the baseball caps of advocates on either side.
"The noise, the pollution . . . a new airport at El Toro would be terrible," said Hungarian-born engineer George Mezei, 64, who bought a home in Aliso Viejo less than six months ago. "Just imagine what it would do to real estate values! How come no one told me about this when I was in escrow?"
But despite showing strength in numbers, Mezei and the anti-airport forces believed Brandman and the "yes" group would ultimately get their way. Mezei called the momentum of the "yes" faction "something we don't seem to be able to alter in Orange County, no matter how stupid they are."
Caroline Salaya, 30, works in Los Angeles, but said she moved to Portola Hills in South County for a quality of life that, in her view, yields better schools, access to the "pristine" Whiting Ranch Wilderness Park and a sense of safety and security that she called unparalleled.
Salaya and her husband, Keith Salaya, 32, chose to move south from Irvine, where they tired of congestion and noise and the feeling that the place wasn't as safe as it used to be.
"I see property values in our new area declining 30% if the new airport goes through," Carolina Salaya said, "not to mention the concerns about traffic, noise and safety. Right now, you have about 30 [military] takeoffs a day at El Toro. But with a new airport, that would be a 24-hour problem. It's just unthinkable."
But Terry Tyson, 52, a retired Air Force veteran who lives in Costa Mesa near John Wayne Airport, called such concerns poppycock, suggesting they were the products of overblown imaginations and runaway hysteria.
Tyson said the economic benefits of a new airport, not to mention the aspect of "putting Orange County on the map of America," would be incalculable for generations to come.
Two of San Diego's toniest neighborhoods, Mission Hills and Point Loma, abut that city's Lindbergh Field airport, he noted, adding that after the construction of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, affluent neighborhoods grew up around it.
"So why wasn't it a problem for those places?" he said. "I'm also offended by these 'anti' people using their children in all their arguments. I was a military guy most of my life. I knew hundreds of kids who grew up within earshot of C-141s taking off, or the roar of Abrams tanks, and you know what? Not a one of those kids was damaged by that. And none of these kids will be either. I say bring it on, and the sooner the better."
Just a moment later, however, clinical psychologist Robert Dotson--a resident of Coto de Caza and a staunch member of the anti-airport side--walked by to add his two cents to Tyson's call for change.
"That," Dotson said, casting a glare on a day full of glares and comments muttered under the breath, "is, I'm afraid, just ridiculous."